I knew it wouldn’t be long because the faraway look I have known since I was a child did not look like it was resolving a problem that someone mentioned in passing. When his eyes closed it was not to get lost in a story playing out in his head, but it was the way that folks do when they long for relief from pain. It is a jarring thing to realize to know that someone will die soon; death is always jarring, but when it’s your someone the realization is the gentle rumble of an earthquake soon to come. About this time last year, I was feeling the rumbling and I knew it wouldn’t be long until my dad passed away, even if it would take a few weeks.
Even when you know, it’s still impossible to know fully the breadth of the grief to come. I have learned over this year that there is a terrible depth to the ways in which loss can be felt in tiny corners of my heart that I didn’t even know where there. I’ve also learned that I grieve most deeply even before the loss happens. Perhaps I’m aware of how large a person looms in my life even before they are gone, or perhaps it’s a poor attempt to grieve on my own terms, before the person is taken from me. Either way, it was about this time last year that I began to experience a heartache unlike any that I’ve ever experienced; truly the only way through this past year has been to put one tender step in front of the other.
I’ve read and thought a lot about grief this past year. My life has never been devoid of grief, especially as I am a firm believer that any loss causes us grief, whether it is a parent or our health or an opportunity we were excited about; every grief is unfathomable. One tender step in front of the other is the only way. As much as I’ve read things explicitly about grief this year, I was surprised that a book recommended by my friend Brent was the book for which I’ve been waiting. H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, is perhaps the best book I’ve read about grief. It is part memoir of her first year after her father died, part narrative about the ins and outs of training her first hawk, and part biography of T.H. White, author of The Sword and the Stone and fellow falconer.
This is an excellent book about grief because it is not just about grief. This is not a deep dive into how she is navigating her pain and sadness; there is no rambling chapters about stages and the inevitable progression through them. It is mostly a story about how she trained her pet hawk, Mabel, but it highlights the fact that when you are grieving, everything is touched by the grief. Grief is a strange animal; strange, I have learned, like a hawk: misunderstood and kept at arms-length.
Nothing in my life in this past year has been spared from the shadow of my grief. Near the end of the book, Macdonald names something that I have been searching for this year, and maybe my whole life: “And for the first time I understood the shape of my grief. I could feel exactly how big it was. It was the strangest feeling, like holding something the size of a mountain in my arms.” Every grief that I’ve ever experienced has been like holding something the size of a mountain, and I’ve never had the words for it.
Everything I’ve done this year has been done while holding a mountain. I don’t anticipate holding it forever, and yet, it has forever changed me. I see when others are carrying their own mountains more now, and I can fathom, even if only in the tiniest bit what your grief might be. It is truly unfathomable to hold a mountain, and every grief is like that.
While I don’t expect to carry this mountain forever, I also know that there will be times when it needs to be picked up again. Sometimes I will be prepared, but others it will knock the wind out of me. My arms may be full, but I will put down all that I carry because to be reminded of the mountain of the man that my father was is to remember all the ways in which he shaped me to be the mountain of a person that I am today. Mountains carrying mountains. To remember our grief, to hold that mountain, is to remember who we are and all the painful, beautiful things in this life that shape who we are becoming.
 Macdonald, Helen. H is for Hawk. 268.